The 7,000 Pound Astronaut in the Room

Patrick Cox, H-NET President and Editor's picture

An argument could be made that any exhibit in a museum is part of popular culture. Galileo’s geometric compass helped navigators use the stars to traverse distances, and then it became an outdated bit of scrap, and then it becomes something different once placed in a museum and available for view. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was purportedly inspired by the view through the iron bars of his asylum window in 1889. In 1941 the painting became part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and 125 years after its creation the impressionistic view of the night has been re-produced, recreated, and re-imagined in ways more or less connected to popular culture, a process made possible by the museumization of the original painting. Paintings in private collections, after all, are rarely refashioned in bacon.

The new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota titled Space: An Out of Gravity Experience is far from the first “museumization of space.” The six million dollar partially NASA-funded endeavor to educate, inspire, and entertain consists of several hands-on activities, a new Imax film, and several artifacts. I was particularly excited to see Neil Armstrong’s gloves. Like “Starry Night”, whether these were in Armstrong’s closet or a storage facility at NASA, displaying them in a museum changes what—and how—they mean. As a fan of space travel, I had honestly never cared much about gloves, but seeing them stunned me into silent contemplation of the reality of space travel more than anything else in the exhibit: I was inches away from gloves that had been worn on the moon. There was an immediacy to the moon brought home through the objects and if it weren't’t for the museum that moon would still seem, well, distant.

Concurrent with the opening of the exhibit, the Museum also purchased and now displays “Escape Velocity,” a 60 foot long sculpture of an astronaut created for the 2014 Coachella Music and Arts Festival by Poetic Kinetics. Poetic Kinetics has built several large scale sculptures for the festival over the years and had created this video of their astronaut’s construction and appearance at the hipster gathering in hopes of finding a new home for it, which turns out to be hanging from the ceiling in a science museum. SMM's Director of Exhibit Design and Development, Mark Dahlager, tells me the museum was basically looking for a hook, stumbled upon “Escape Velocity” online, and made an offer. Poetic Kinetics was having trouble finding a buyer which Dahlager thinks helped the museum get a deal: he estimates the museum spent $150,000 for the astronaut and another $150,000 on construction, installation, and engineering modifications to the ceiling to make the 7,000 pound astronaut appear to float freely in space. That's not an insignificant investment to add ostensibly an artwork to the non-profit institute of science learning’s permanent collection.

The astronaut now occupies most of a five-story interior space at the Science Museum of Minnesota and will remain there indefinitely, likely well beyond the duration of the Space exhibit. Contrary to “Starry Night” or Galileo’s tools whose routes to popular culture led through museums, “Escape Velocity” was originally designed and built for a popular culture event and has moved into a museum—a museum with the mission statement: “Turn on the Science: Inspire learning. Inform policy. Improve lives.”

What happens to such an object? Is it still popular culture? Does it become educational? Scientific? Personally, I’m not sure I’d say the sculpture is or ever was “educational” in itself, and it may have greater potential to be educational in the arts or engineering than around space, but I have no trouble believing the enormous astronaut inspires learning and ambition (and possibly nightmares). On one hand, the museum is certainly keeping the astronaut linked to popular culture beyond the museum: visitors can make a short film of their faces and see it projected in the enormous mask of the astronaut. Nearby signage encourages snapping a spacey selfie of the projection and instantly posting it online with the hashtag #giantastronaut. On the other hand, the museum is keeping a distance from the original “Escape Velocity” hashtag #coachellaastronaut. SMM has also removed a patch on the astronaut’s suit that referenced Coachella and replaced it with a Science Museum of Minnesota patch. (Poetic Kinetics tags remain on the soles of boots, though, along with quotes from Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong.) It’s a deft bit of re-branding that suggests the museum is part of popular culture…but not the same popular culture as Coachella.  (Though I find this hard to escape: as Armstrong’s gloves brought the moon close to home, when I look at “Escape Velocity” I can’t help but think I'm inches away from an object people smoked pot next to while listening to Fatboy Slim.)

There are manifestations of space that are easy to digest as pop culture.  Movies, TV shows, some music, and my 7 year old son’s Star-Lord costume all spring to mind. But “Escape Velocity” at SMM steps into a greyer area that merges space and popular culture with education in a place my museum colleagues call “informal learning” and my academic colleagues call “edutainment.” Is this a huge re-making of a pop culture artifact into an educational one? Or is such a re-making even necessary? When the aim is to inspire leaning and drive attendance, to educate while selling tickets, does it even matter if a piece of pop culture is simply picked up and transplanted wholesale into a museum? Does anything happen to this museumized object?

Poetic Kinetics posted a news release about the installation of their work at the Science Museum of Minnesota. It reads in part, “As Escape Velocity continues the adventure from art studio to music festival to science museum those who see it in Saint Paul can share in that history and be reminded of the indistinguishable boundaries between art, music and science. Perhaps it will also impart the creative passion that will lead to the next great innovations in the human experience, which will in turn be celebrated by the next generation in the songs and art of tomorrow.” The journey from “art studio to music festival to science museum” and “the indistinguishable boundaries between art, music, and science” suggest the sculpture as always already and inevitably part of popular culture, the arts, and education. Perhaps space has been so much a part of popular culture for so long that space education can’t help but tap into and be part of popular culture as well. One can still see Van Gogh’s "Starry Night” without the (totally awesome) insertion of Batman, but are there any representations of space and space travel that don’t come hand-in-hand with popular culture? The TV news? Space education only could escape popular culture in the driest of lectures. #GiantAstonaut, like the production and reception of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of “Cosmos,” seem to make pretty clear: space education itself is popular culture.


The author's face projected on the giant mask of "Escape Velocity." Full disclosure: Patrick Cox is a researcher at SMM.

Somewhere among all the links in my belated contribution to H-PCAACA's Space in Popular Culture month, one more link was lost. Here is the video Poetic Kinetics produced documenting Escape Velocity's construction and appearance at Coachella.